BWW Review: THE NEVERENDING STORY at The Stratford Festival is a Magical Adventure for the Whole Family
This season at the Stratford Festival, a new generation of imaginative dreamers now has the opportunity to be introduced to Michael Ende's THE NEVERENDING STORY. In partnership with Canada's National Arts Centre and presented by Schulich Children's Plays, this play is the perfect out for a family looking to immerse themselves in the arts while visiting Stratford.
Based on the book that Ende wrote in 1979, this adaptation by David S. Craig and directed by Jillian Keiley tells the story of Bastian (Jake Runeckles), a shy young boy who has recently lost his mother. Bastian loves reading, and with the help of an enigmatic bookshop owner (Roy Lewis), he finds a book that is simply impossible to put down. Soon, he finds himself immersed in the world of Fantastica, following our hero, Atreyu (Qasim Khan) on his quest to save the magical world from the mysterious "Nothing" that is rapidly taking it over. With some creative design and clever puppetry, the company of this production brings this story to life-hopefully creating a few more young Bastians in the process.
Many audience goers (from my experience, mostly the adults) will be familiar with this story because of the 1984 movie of the same name. The play is similar to the movie in plot alone. This is imagined from the book, and although the movie was too, there are two very different imaginations at play. Ende famously disliked the movie adaptation and so it seems only fair that future adaptations don't try to emulate it, and instead do their own thing. The tricky thing is that the movie was beloved and I can attest to the fact that it is incredibly jarring to see some of these images and characters (particularly the Auryn necklace and Falkor the Luck Dragon) designed completely differently-even when you go into the show expecting it. This is in no way a knock on the production, but instead a friendly recommendation to audience members to do their best to allow themselves to rediscover the story with an open mind.
The ambitious design by Bretta Gerecke was at times, simply visually stunning and was evidently captivating to all the young people in the audience. Combined with the lighting design by Leigh Ann Vardy, the wonderful music composed by Hawksley Workman, and the fine performances by the company (both in acting and puppetry), this world truly does come to life.
Workman's musical compositions set the tone from the very beginning with a catchy new theme song, but it is the theme that plays during a sad moment in the first half of the play that really makes it clear how integral the music is to telling this story.
Runeckles and Kahn are both excellent at engaging young audience members with their earnest performances as unassuming heroes. Also excellent is Andrew Robinson as the voice and the head of Atreyu's literal Ride-Or-Die Artax. He is immediately funny and loveable and quite possibly the highlight of this production. Also necessary in bringing Artax to life are puppeteers: Rylan Wilke-who is also great as Falkor the Caretaker later in the play, Ijeoma Emesowum, Laura Condlin, Andrew Iles, and Jennifer Rider Shaw. Movement and Puppetry Director Brad Cook does a fine job at coordinating all the moving parts required to bring the fun and fabulous creatures in this play to life.
Actor Sean Arbuckle sure gets a workout in this play. It felt like he was on stage almost all the time playing a variety of heroes and villains. He was particularly delightful as the puppeteer for gnomes Urgl and Engywook, for whose romantic relationship I found myself far more invested than I ever imagined I would be.
As I perused the gift shop at the Avon Theatre after this production, I noticed that the Festival is selling a variety of fantasy books. They have selected publications with colourful and enticing covers, really promoting the concept of reading being a magical adventure. I appreciate this clever way to encourage children to read as they exit a show that has hopefully spent over two hours doing the same.
This show is definitely oriented towards children and so adults who love the book or movie because of the metaphors and existential questions they explore, will likely find that lacking in this script. All can enjoy this play, but it is the Schulich Children's Play of the season and it has clearly been made for the younger folk. It is a wonderful way to introduce young people to the theatre.
THE NEVERENDING STORY continues in repertory at the Avon Theatre until November 3rd.
Photo Credit: Emily Cooper